For two weeks in a row, President Donald Trump has blindsided his own staff by making major policy announcements out of the blue, leaving it up to the White House to improvise the implementation. On March 1, Trump declared that he would be imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. “When White House aides arrived at work on Thursday,” The New York Times reported later that day, “they had no clear idea of what Mr. Trump would say about trade.” Eight days later, Trump unexpectedly agreed to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s invitation to meet, a sudden reversal of policy that blindsided not just the White House but the State Department and America’s allies. (Just hours earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had told reporters that “we’re a long ways from negotiations.”)
Trump “is increasingly flying solo,” in the words of the Associated Press’ Catherine Lucey and Jonathan Lemire. He has become a rogue president who prefers to keep his own counsel. What’s driven him to his unilateralist position is not so much the resistance of his opponents as the dissension of his staff, beset from the start of his presidency by internal strife, leaks, and hasty exits and firings. As Lucey and Lemire report, “Trump has told confidants recently that he wants to be less reliant on his staff, believing they often give bad advice, and that he plans to follow his own instincts, which he credits with his stunning election.”
To be sure, Trump has been a political improviser since his launched his presidential campaign, often abandoning on a whim the Republican Party’s longstanding policy positions. In January meeting with congressional leaders he took the Democratic side and said he wanted a clean bill to renew the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Trump’s staff later clarified that a DACA extension had to include border security—in other words, not a clean bill. Earlier this month, the White House had to walk back pro-gun control promises Trump made at another meeting with congressional leaders, such as his suggestion that when it comes to dangerous people, “take the gun first, go through due process second.”
But Trump’s two recent surprises are far more consequential than his comments on DACA and gun control, which created confusion that the White House staff could clean up by denying the plain meaning of Trump’s words. With the steel and aluminum tariffs and the opening to North Korea, Trump has initiated major initiatives that will be hard for his administration to overturn.
A rogue president isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in terms of setting an agenda. While some administration officials—notably “the generals,” like chief of staff John Kelly—are described as a moderating influence on Trump, the president’s policy instincts are often less extreme than those of his party. Leaving aside tariffs, which some Democrats support, Trump’s off-the-cuff positions on immigration, gun control, and North Korea are relatively sensible for a Republican. The problem lies with implementation. Trump doesn’t have the command of policy or the necessary consensus to push through his preferences, which leaves him at the mercy of a staff and party that is more than willing to box him and on occasion to undermine him.
As Vox’ Matthew Yglesias argued in January, “Trump is holding the office of president, but he’s not doing the job of president. He seems to have no real idea what’s going on, even with his own signature policy moves.” The immigration case is the best example of this, since Trump’s many contrary statements don’t add up to a coherent policy. This allowed hardliners like senior adviser Stephen Miller to fill the vacuum by pushing an agenda that includes cuts to legal immigration.
History suggests that it is possible and desirable at times for a president to buck his own administration and the permanent bureaucracy. When President Richard Nixon decided to open up relations with China, he was going against the longstanding orientation of the Republican Party, the Pentagon and the State Department. To execute the policy, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, had to work carefully and sometimes covertly, in order to bypass resistance in their own administration. When Henry Kissinger travelled to China in 1971 it was done secretly.
In other words, the type of policy coup Nixon and Kissinger pulled off required great cunning and knowledge of the inner workings of the American government. Trump undoubtedly possess a certain cunning in terms of politics, he has never shown such command of policy and process. As Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, put it in Foreign Policy, Trump’s latest move is “like Richard Nixon going to China, but if Nixon were a moron.”
The outcome of Trump’s rogue decision-making is likely to be closer to Ronald Reagan’s than Nixon. While Nixon achieved his goal of an opening to China and detente with the Soviet Union, Reagan wasn’t able to follow through with his equally ambitious desire to completely eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons. In the 1986 USA-Soviet summit in Iceland, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev entertained the radical proposal to completely do away nuclear weapons. He did so in the face of opposition of many in own government, such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. But Reagan wasn’t able to follow through on the idea, in part because he couldn’t reconcile it with other policy preferences, like his support for the Strategic Defense Initiative. But the larger problem was that Reagan was willing to entertain the idea but didn’t have either the knowledge or drive to advance it.
While Trump is making his decisions alone, he still needs a consensus in his government to implement those policies. But Trump’s solo decisions will drive away even more staffers in an already depleted administration. The tariff decision led to the resignation of Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, and was carried out in a typically haphazard way, with exemptions granted to certain countries like Canada and Mexico countries, sowing even more confusion and chaos.
There are already sees signs of turmoil after the North Korea decision, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders casting doubt on whether the meeting would even take place. “The White House’s muddled message highlighted the confusion sowed by Mr. Trump’s on-the-spot decision to meet Mr. Kim,” Mark Landler wrote in the Times. “Having built its North Korea policy on sanctions and threats of military action, the administration must now learn the language of engagement.” As Landler reports, even State Department officials who welcome talks with North Korea have misgivings because of the internal strife in the administration and believe “the chances of a meeting between the two leaders actually happening were less than 50 percent.”
The most serious danger is that because Trump has no firm policy commitments, he could easily swing from engaging with North Korea to returning to aggression if the talks fail. The hawks who might normally oppose Trump’s outreach to North Korea already see this as a potential silver lining. Former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, frequently discussed as a future national security advisor, is explicitly hoping for this outcome. As he told a Washington radio station, “I think this session between the two leaders could well be a fairly brief session where Trump says, ‘Tell me you have begun total denuclearization, because we’re not going to have protracted negotiations, you can tell me right now or we’ll start thinking of something else.’”
Trump is returning to his campaign mould, where he spoke about how “I alone” can solve problems and only needed to consult himself. Asked in 2016 who his advisers were, Trump said, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” The problem is, even if he had the greatest brain ever, Trump would still need the support of his administration—and in some cases, the majority of his party. Trump might feel like he’s taking control of his presidency, but he doesn’t have the control necessary to turn his ideas into action.